Benedict Anderson is professor emeritus of International Studies at Cornell University. His most recent books are Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination and a revised edition of Imagined Communities (both Verso).

Madman lynched, icon cloned, rancour remains

On March 21, 2006, Bangkok newspapers published reports on a lynching that had just taken place in one of the smarter parts of town. In the middle of the night a 27-year old "madman" destroyed, with a hammer, a large plaster-cum-gold leaf image of the Hindu god Brahma on a pedestal in front of the luxury Erawan Hotel. Enraged by this sacrilege, a small crowd surrounded the perpetrator and quickly clubbed and stabbed him to death Two street sweepers were desultorily questioned by the police, then released. Interviewed, the youngster's father, a 51-year-old manual labourer, said that his son was a good boy, but had been hospitalized several times over the previous six years for fits of depression and occasional destruction of property. The media, however, and perhaps the public, were as one: the "madman" deserved his fate. In the civilized capital city lynchings are rare: the last one, organized coolly from within the state apparatus, occurred thirty years earlier. But, as the great man said: stuff happens.

The aura of this brummagem Brahma had nothing to do with art, let alone with antiquity. It was factory-ordered for the opening of the hotel in 1956, and placed in a spot identified by a well-known astrologer who doubled as a rear admiral; a grandiose version of the "spirit houses" that protect all new Thai buildings from maleficent supernatural forces. Gradually, over the years, it acquired an exceptional local, national and even international reputation, despite the hotel itself falling into Hyatt hands in 1994. If you were facing a crucial examination ill-prepared; if the boy or girl on whom you had set your heart ignored you; if your business was in parlous shape; if you were unsure of being elected to some desirable office; if a lawsuit seemed likely to go against you; if your mother was facing a serious operation – Brahma would help, provided the prayers, candles, garlands and other offerings were correctly presented.

In a Buddhist country, the Hindu divinity, attached to no temple and serviced by no priestly caste, had an ecumenical air as attractive to the Sino-Chinese middle class as to visitors from religiously syncretic places like Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China, and Singapore. Alas, devout Hindus were much less keen. Conveniently located in the shopping belt, the shrine was very popular with secular tourists, who enjoyed both the exotic four-faced image and the non-stop polyglot scrum of devotees. In this way Brahma acquired an economic base among the city's hotel managers, travel agencies, taxi drivers and vendors as well as nearby shops and restaurants. Finally, this divinity had the advantage of modernity. After the image was destroyed, Hyatt quickly ordered a replica from the original factory, and even announced that it had bought an extra spare – just in case. Not what one would expect from any famous Buddha image, but very handy nonetheless.

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